Hollywood icon Elizabeth Taylor dies at 79

Elizabeth Taylor, who died at the age of 79 on Wednesday, was the archetypal Hollywood movie queen, a violet-eyed beauty known equally for her stormy romances and eight marriages as her Oscar-winning performances.

Taylor had been in hospital in Los Angeles for six weeks with congestive heart failure, a condition with which she had struggled for some years, and had recently suffered complications, a family statement said.

“Legendary actress, businesswoman, and fearless activist Elizabeth Taylor died peacefully today in Cedars-Sinai Hospital in Los Angeles,” said the statement by her publicist, quoting her son.

“She was surrounded by her children — Michael Wilding, Christopher Wilding, Liza Todd, and Maria Burton,” it added, noting that she was also survived by 10 grandchildren and four great-grandchildren.

Five-decade career
Over a five-decade career she won two Academy Awards for best actress, including for the 1966 classic Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, one of many films where she played opposite her two-times husband Richard Burton.

In later years as her health failed she retired from the public gaze, although she notably attended the 2009 funeral of her long-time friend Michael Jackson, while she remained active in raising funds to battle HIV/Aids.

Born in London on February 27 1932, she was evacuated to California with her American parents in 1939, where she was soon discovered at her father’s art gallery by the fiancée of the chairperson of Universal Studios.

She debuted in 1942 in There’s One Born Every Minute, and by 1944 had become a child star with National Velvet, the story of a girl who rides her horse to victory at the Grand National disguised as a boy.

“Before men, my great love was for animals, which I still have,” Taylor would later say.

Schooled on the set, it wasn’t long before her attention turned to men.

She married for the first time in 1950, aged 18, to playboy hotel chain heir Nicky Hilton. The marriage lasted 203 days, collapsing amid verbal and physical abuse after a lavish Hollywood wedding and a three-month European honeymoon.

Taylor moved on, and by 1952 she had tied the knot with British matinee idol Michael Wilding, 19 years her senior. They had two children, Michael Jnr and Christopher.

Though Taylor said Wilding gave her stability, it wasn’t enough. She filed for divorce in 1956, and within days of the separation producer Michael Todd (49) proposed.

First great love
Tough and domineering, he was Taylor’s first great love. They had a daughter, Elizabeth Frances, in August 1957, but seven months later tragedy struck: Todd was killed in a plane crash in New Mexico.

Devastated, Taylor was accompanied at Todd’s funeral by his best friend, singer Eddie Fisher, whose wife, actress Debbie Reynolds, stayed home in California to take care of Taylor’s children. From grieving widow to home-wrecker, Taylor made a lightning change of roles, stealing Fisher from Reynolds in an affair that scandalised puritanical America.

They married in 1959, but the public outrage nearly killed Taylor’s flourishing acting career.

She had just finished filming the Tennessee Williams classic, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, (1958) with Paul Newman, and had already earned critical raves with Giant (1956), the Texas oil patch epic with Rock Hudson and James Dean.

But her flame only burned brighter. She made Tennessee Williams’s Suddenly Last Summer in 1959 with Katharine Hepburn and Montgomery Clift.

The following year, she won her first Oscar for best actress for her portrayal of a high-class call girl in Butterfield 8. Taylor is said to have hated the movie.

Then came Cleopatra (1962) — “surely the most bizarre piece of entertainment ever perpetrated”, Taylor said of the production, at the time the most expensive in Hollywood history. Taylor was paid a record million dollars.

The movie flopped, but the Roman set was the backdrop for a sizzling love affair that made headlines around the world: Taylor and her leading man, Burton, who was married.

“Elizabeth looks at you with those eyes, and your blood churns,” said Burton, a Shakesperean actor hailed as the next Lawrence Olivier.

They married in March 1964 in Montreal. By the time they were filming Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, the harrowing portrayal of a marriage torn by booze, bitterness and failure mirrored their own.

They divorced in June, 1974 and remarried in October of the following year in Botswana, only to divorce again in August, 1976. Before he died, Burton commented: “We never really split up — and we never will.”

The marriage left Taylor an alcoholic, and her career in decline. A seventh marriage to Virginia Senator John Warner, from 1976 to 1982, failed to cure the blues.

Alcoholism and painkillers
In and out of California’s Betty Ford Clinic in the 1980s, she overcame her alcoholism and a dependence on painkillers and emerged as a champion in the cause of Aids victims.

In 1991, she stunned the world by marrying husband number eight: Larry Fortensky, a 40-year-old construction worker she met in rehab. They parted amicably three years later.

Taylor’s health continued to deteriorate. In 1997, she underwent surgery to have a brain tumour removed and in 2006 she appeared on US television to deny rumours she had Alzheimer’s disease.

In July 2008, she was hospitalised but her spokesperson denied reports that she was close to death, while in 2009, she underwent heart surgery to repair a “leaky valve”, tweeting afterwards: “It’s like having a brand new ticker.”

She was admitted to hospital in early February 2011 for “symptoms caused by congestive heart failure”, an ongoing condition, said her publicist Sally Morrison. — AFP

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